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MEMO in conversation with Omar Shakir

Watch our conversation with the Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch, Omar Shakir, discussing the organisation's latest report which found that Israeli authorities are committing apartheid and persecution against Palestinians.

May 5, 2021 at 11:05 am

Following last week’s publication of the report by Human Rights Watch A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution MEMO interviewed the report’s author, Omar Shakir, who is the Israel and Palestine director of the Washington based pre-eminent rights group.

Shakir has a long history of covering human rights issues. Prior to his current role, he was a Bertha Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights, where he focused on US counterterrorism policies, including legal representation of Guantanamo detainees. He also investigated human rights violations in Egypt, including the Rabaa massacre, one of the largest killings of protesters in a single day. A former Fulbright Scholar in Syria, Shakir holds a JD from Stanford Law School, where he co-authored a report on the civilian consequences of US drone strikes in Pakistan as a part of the International Human Rights & Conflict Resolution Clinic.

Shakir fielded questions around the internal decision making within HRW which led it to conclude that Israel had passed a threshold to meet the criterion of state practicing the crime of apartheid; questions about the report’s content and recommendations and also how it has been received by governments and the media generally.

The conversation, however, began with Shakir speaking about the initial days following the report’s release. “There had been serious engagement,” Shakir said, from governments and publications from around the world. Meetings have been held with state representatives of different levels to discuss the publication.

HRW has been covering the Israel-Palestine issue for decades, publishing a number of detailed reports on the topic. When did it take the view that what it documented in Israel and Palestine had passed the threshold for Israel to be considered a state that practices apartheid, Shakir was asked. He explained the internal process which involved looking at Israel and Palestine “holistically.” With the joint effort of researchers on the ground and HRW’s legal department, his team was able to apply international law around the crime of apartheid and persecution on the territories occupied by Israel. He also explained the rigorous internal review process that needed to be met before making the determination it did about Israel.

Speaking about the report’s content, Shakir described the international legal framework around apartheid and persecution. Apartheid is a crime against humanity, defined in the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. He spoke at length explaining Israeli polices designed to maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians and to discriminate against them across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

A common refrain against the application of apartheid to Israel is that its Palestinian citizens are granted the right to vote and their status in general is far better than what Palestinians face elsewhere. Admitting that the situation for the 2.2 million Palestinian citizens is better Shakir explained that Israel’s policy of ensuring Jewish domination needs to be taken holistically after which he provided numerous examples of the way in which even within Israel non-Jews face “stark discrimination” on account of who they are.

Shakir was asked to provide an update on his situation. In 2019 he was expelled from occupied East Jerusalem by the Israeli authorities because of his human rights advocacy. “Israel has joined the ranks of countries like Egypt, Sudan, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela that have barred access to Human Rights Watch researchers,” he said. Despite such hurdles, he explained, the rights group tries to carry out its work of documenting abuse.